Glencairn's "Slim Princess": A Twelfth-Century Beauty Queen

Glencairn Museum News | Number 6, 2015

 

In 1967 Miss America was photographed with Glencairn's "Slim Princess."

 

A Statue Column of a Haloed Queen from the Church of Saint-Thibaut, Provins, France | This beloved sculpture of Glencairn’s collection stands in a place of prominence in the great hall, tranquilly watching over viewers as they move about the space. Part statue, part architectural column, it offers a rigid standard of beauty based on long proportions, slender forms and intricate carving, an artistic standard that complimented the Gothic style of building.

 

Figure 1: Affectionately called the “Slim Princess” by the Pitcairn family, this twelfth-century statue column of a haloed queen was purchased by Raymond Pitcairn in the 1920s and displayed in the parlor hall of Cairnwood, their Bryn Athyn home. Later it was installed in the great hall of Glencairn, enclosed by a stone portal with crosses.

 

The sculpture depicts a woman holding the remains of a book with a jeweled cover in what is left of her damaged hands. Her exceptionally long hair is bound into two ribbon-wrapped braids that fall along her shoulders and arms. Her fine dress reveals her high rank. Highborn medieval ladies’ clothing typically consisted of layered long garments. This figure wears as a base garment a plain chemise with a high collar that is mostly covered by a bliaut, a slightly shorter tunic that is embellished at the high, form-fitting waist with a textured pattern. Draped over her shoulders and arms is a warm mantle. The vertical folds of her dress accentuate her height and slender form. At her throat is an ornate jeweled brooch, and atop her head, over a simple veil, she wears a crown. Since medieval sculpture was usually painted, we can imagine her outfit and adornments to have been very colorful.

 

Figure 2: The woman depicted in the sculpture wears the garments of a highborn medieval lady. She holds the remains of a book in her hands.

 

Standing at five feet five inches, this limestone statue is not carved entirely in the round. The back of the figure attaches to a round column that, while a replacement affixed at a later date, approximates the sculpture’s original function as a statue column—a decorative structural feature. The fusion of a carved form with an architectural element is a hallmark of medieval sculpture, as can be observed in the numerous carved capitals in Glencairn’s collection. The statue column was but one specific kind of architectural embellishment, one that became associated with the Gothic style of building. This style, which was developed around the mid-twelfth century, saw builders striving for staggeringly tall, skeletal structures with light-filled interiors. The slender, attenuated forms of Gothic cathedrals, found in towns such as Chartres and Amiens, are embodied in the proportions of Glencairn’s statue column.

 

Figure 3: The back of the figure is attached to a round column. Her long hair is bound into braids.

 

This figure would likely have stood on a plinth, towering over viewers, in a position somewhat akin to its elevated placement in Glencairn’s great hall. Most frequently, groups of statue columns such as this one would have lined the jambs of church portals, raised above ground level and seeming to survey churchgoers as they entered and left. In 1990, the art historian Pamela Blum, a specialist in Gothic sculpture, investigated the exact origins of the statue, which was purported to be from Provins, a town in the Champagne region of France, though it had long been removed from its original context. Following a trail of evidence including everything from the correspondence of Raymond Pitcairn to drawings and engravings made by eighteenth-century travelers and art aficionados, Blum was able to confirm the sculpture’s origin at the now-destroyed church of Saint-Thibaut in Provins. The sculpture is generally dated to the 1160s.

 

Figure 4: Ruins of Église Saint-Thibault. Place du Châtel, Provins. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Poulpy.

 

Affectionately referred to as the “Slim Princess” by the Pitcairn family, who lived with her on a daily basis at Glencairn for some 40 years, the sculpture probably depicts a queen. The specific identity of this young ruler, however, remains a question, and this is the case for many of the statue columns that adorn the portals of Gothic churches. Though their identities may have been well known to those medieval viewers who habitually encountered them, over time this information was lost. It is often said that during the French Revolution, firebrands angry with both the monarchy and the church misinterpreted such images as portraits of past rulers of France, and so defaced them, in many cases lopping off their stone heads as if they were guillotined. This was an unlikely interpretation, however, since the medieval designers of churches were more interested in depicting sacred history. In light of this, art historians believe that most such statues actually represented Biblical kings and queens. Indeed, the Glencairn statue’s head is framed by a large round halo, clearly indicating she was a holy person. Her potential basis in the Bible and her regal appearance have caused scholars to suggest the “Slim Princess” is actually the Queen of Sheba; perhaps she held court with Solomon, David, or other Old Testament rulers in the form of other statue columns at the entrance to Saint-Thibaut.

 

Figure 5: The head of the statue is topped with a crown, worn over a simple veil. The large halo indicates that she was a holy person.

 

Statue columns tend to be characterized by the solemnity of their bearing and expression. This particular queen, however, seems to bring a bit of levity to her high-ranking position. While she is not exactly smiling, her lips are set in a relaxed, somewhat mirthful manner. Some small areas of her face appear to have been recarved by modern hands, prior to the sculpture’s acquisition by Raymond Pitcairn—though this practice is frowned upon, in the past it was thought by many art dealers to increase the value of their wares. The statue’s mouth, however, was untouched. This indicates that when she was first set next to the entryway of Saint-Thibaut, she regarded onlookers with a placid, and even pleased expression.

 

Figure 6: The sculpture’s lips are set in a relaxed, mirthful manner, regarding onlookers with a pleased expression.

 
 

Figure 7: An ornate, jeweled brooch is positioned at the throat of the figure.

 

Her contented mien is somewhat unusual, since twelfth-century sculptures were rarely made to smile or betray any other expression of emotion—and if they were, they tended not to be kings or queens who, regardless of their identity, represented the utter seriousness of their station. Twelfth-century authors believed that outer comportment and appearance reflected a person’s inner qualities or state of mind. Accordingly, it is thought that images from this period were meant to record the inner virtues (or vices) of those they represented through their visible qualities. As a result, medieval image designers usually opted for idealized or generalized faces and figures, rather than specific, portrait-like renderings of people.

 

Figure 8: Raymond Pitcairn installed the “Slim Princess” in the southeast corner of Glencairn’s great hall, together with other sculptures dating to the medieval period.

 

Perhaps because of her pleasant regard, the “Slim Princess” came to play a prominent role in the Pitcairn family’s life. A 1930s photograph taken in the parlor hall of Cairnwood, the Pitcairns’ home prior to the construction of Glencairn, shows her attached to a column beside the ping-pong table. A 1940s photograph taken in Glencairn’s great hall shows matriarch Mildred Pitcairn at the statue’s side, where Miss America would stand over twenty years later, dressed in what appears to be a distinctly medieval-inspired gown that falls in vertical folds similar to those of the sculpture. The joy on Mrs. Pitcairn’s face is testament to how much this sculpture meant to the family—and continues to mean to Glencairn’s visitors today.

 

Figure 9: Mildred Pitcairn, wife of Raymond, poses in a medieval-style gown with the “Slim Princess.” Photo: Glencairn Museum Archives.

 
 

Figure 10: The twelfth-century statue-column, thought to represent the Queen of Sheba, was displayed in Cairnwood's parlor hall in the 1930s. Here the figure is tied to a column with a piece of wire, just behind a ping-pong table. Photo: Glencairn Museum Archives.

 

Julia Perratore, PhD
Mellon Curatorial Fellow
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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